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Translating Exclamations in Aeschylus

Sarah Ruden


Classical Greek exclamations, as words with a very wide range of possibilities for representation in modern English, provide an interesting basis for a discussion of translation tastes and principles; particularly as related to the perennial question of how loosely a translator should render the original language in an effort to achieve roughly analogous literary effects.

Unlike the particles (another element commonly called “untranslatable”), the exclamations are discrete and important verbal acts, often helping set scenes, marking turning points, and supplementing if not comprising stage directions imbedded in the text. But the words have nothing like equivalents anywhere in modern North American or British culture. Our emotive, spontaneous utterances are typically swearwords, which have clear but metaphoric meanings alien to tragic topics, and unsuited to the tragic register. Substitutes within the bounds of propriety (“Alas!” “Golly!”) are so outdated and stilted that they are even more awkward. Nor is the comic-book super-villain’s “EEEEEEE!!!” spread across a page suitable for the panicked lyric self-lament of Cassandra (Agamemnon) or the raging parados of the Furies (Eumenides). Exclamations consisting of repeated vowel sounds (joined double epsilon, separate double alpha, joined iota omega) would suggest inarticulate cries – if not for their ritualistic and metrical contexts. And what can be done with a word like popax in Eum. 143, a hapax? In Aristophanes, the –ax ending (including in exclamations) is characteristically comic. But in the Eumenides it is best described as an intensified version of popoi, a lofty, literary expression of shock and distress. Lattimore did not translate it. I thought something strongly adversative was needed and settled for “No! No!”

In my own and other translations, three solutions to the problem of exclamations predominate:

1) To suppress the exclamation but incorporate its force into a sentence somehow, adding, for instance, an exclamation point at the end, or heightening another word or words. In Agamemnon 1107, the exclamation combines with talaina, which usually means “wretched,” sometimes “abandoned” in the moral sense, so that together the two might fruitfully yield the word “monster.”

2) To spell out the state of mind or situation as an exclamation (“Agony!” “No!” “My grief!”). “Horrible! What is she plotting?” is a possible version of iō popoi, ti pote mēdetai;  (Agamemnon 1100).

(3) To use a reasonably decorous-sounding inarticulate cry (“Aaah!” “[A shriek]”). At the very beginning of Cassandra’s threnody, in Agamemnon 1072, the translation might read: “Cassandra: (wails in grief and horror): Apollo! Apollo!” The English in parentheses represents the elaborate exclamation ototototoi popoi da in Greek.

Particularly intriguing as comparanda are exclamations in the translations of Bryan Doerries. This translator has actually tested his versions of tragedy prepublication through live productions for audiences of US military veterans. Emotional authenticity has been for him the main goal in work that follows Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, which posits an original therapeutic function of Greek tragedy. In Philoctetes, for example, the repeated exclamation (from the protagonist as he suffers despair and physical agony) “Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!” is used for Greek expressions as different as a-a and pappapappapai. But should the words instead be differentiated through English translation? Ideally, yes, when a translator integrates scholarly data with the literary impulses of rendering texts for the stage. This data allows for more-precise tracing of verbal rhythms and dramatic moods. As always, not everything can be shown in the target language, but the choices should be as extensively informed as possible. 

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Translating Greek Tragedy: Some Practical Suggestions (workshop)

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